Plyometrics is a broad term that describes a variety of special exercises to improve speed, power, jumping ability, and overall athletic performance. In recent years with the popularity of many “boot camp” programs, it has also become a method to improve muscular endurance and even help with fat loss. Yes, plyometrics can do all these things, but they can also cause more harm than good if you don’t know what you are doing.
Many sport coaches and personal trainers have avoided plyometrics altogether because they believe this form of training with it a high risk of injury. This can be true if they are used improperly, so the first step is to understand stresses associated with the various forms of plyometrics. Let’s start with the type of plyometric workouts that are most likely to get the average person into trouble: shock training.
Russian sports scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky was a coach who trained track and field athletes in the jumping events. Because of harsh environmental conditions that prevented his athletes from training outside in the winter, Verkhoshansky experimented with ways to duplicate the stress that occurred during the takeoffs for the jumps. He tried using heavy partial squats, but this approach required the use of especially heavy weights that he found was harmful to the spine. His solution was a form of advanced jump training that enabled 12 of his athletes to become “Master of Sport,” one of the highest honors awarded to Russian athletes.
This advanced form of jump training, often referred to as shock training or classical plyometrics, involves a mechanical shock stimulation that causes the storage and release of elastic energy and enables the muscles to produce especially high levels of tension. An example of such an activity for the lower body would be stepping off of a low platform and immediately jumping upward as high as possible. A Marine Corps push-up, where you clap your hands between repetitions, would be an example of an upper body plyometric activity.
The sixth edition of Verkhoshansky’s and Dr. Mel Siff’s book Supertraining includes a detailed 12-week workout using shock training. One of the characteristics of these workouts is that they contain relatively few total reps and abundant rest between sets. For example, the plyometric section of a workout might consist of just two sets of 5-10 reps of an intense jump, with 4-6 minutes rest between each set – that’s all! And often such training may be prescribed only twice a week, or in some cases only once a week. Obviously, such a workout protocol will do little to burn calories or build muscular endurance; but these types of workouts are designed for athletes, and many of the exercises require a high strength base to perform safely that some trainees do not have.
Jumping off of high boxes may be ill-advised for the average trainee, but consider that sprinting is considered a form of plyometric training. Moving their legs faster (stride frequency) is one aspect of running faster, but so is spending less time on the ground. A world-class sprinter spends little time on the ground (some only .8 seconds per step!), and as such sprinting could be considered plyometric. Repeated sprints not only can create a high caloric burn but also can help build muscle (as seen by the physiques of many world class male and female sprinters) and increase muscular endurance.
A simple example of a sprint workout designed to build fast-twitch muscles and burn fat would be to sprint the straight portions of a quarter-mile track and walk the curved portion. As a warm-up, you would not sprint at full speed for several laps; as a cool-down, you could walk several laps. A 45-minute training session that includes about a half dozen all-out sprints could be quite challenging and add welcomed variety to your training.
One category of plyometrics that almost anyone can perform is what Verkhoshansky calls “preparatory plyometrics,” such that they don’t have the stress of an intense mechanical shock such as occurs when stepping off a box. Jumping rope, skipping, hopping, jumping onto boxes (rather than off of them) could be considered preparatory plyometrics.
When using preparatory plyometrics, the more stress an exercise places on the body, the less total reps should be performed. In their textbook Weight Training: A Scientific Approach, authors Dr. Michael Stone and Dr. Harold O’Bryant divided 47 plyometric activities into four categories: low intensity, moderate intensity, high intensity, and very intense. With a low-intensity exercise, you might perform as many as 10 sets of 12 reps of an exercise with little rest between sets, but with a very intense exercise, only 3 sets of 6 reps. As an example, here is a beginner preparatory plyometric workout that trains both the upper and lower body.
A. Jump Rope: 3-5 minutes, double and single leg jumps, rest 120 seconds
B. Standing Box Jump, 8-inch tall box, 10 reps x 3-5 sets, rest 120 seconds
C. Medicine Ball Chest Pass, 20 reps x 3-5 sets, rest 60 seconds
D. Drop Lunge from 4-inch platform, 10 reps each leg x 2-4 sets, rest 120 seconds
A simple format for box jumps that might be used in a group setting could be as follows:
A. Jump rope: 3-5 minutes, double and single leg jumps, rest 120 seconds
B. Standing Box Jump, 20-inch tall box, 5 reps x 1-2 sets, 90-120 seconds rest
C. Standing Box Jump, 16-inch tall box: 10 reps x 2-3 sets, 60-90 seconds rest
D. Standing Box Jump, 12-inch tall box: 15 reps x 3-4 sets, 30-60 seconds rest
To break things up and give the lower body time to recover, an upper body medicine ball exercise could be performed after sets B and C. Excellent books on how to perform a large variety of upper and lower body plyometric exercises, along with specific workouts, include Dr. Don Chu’s Plyometrics and James Radcliffe’s and Robert Farentinos’s High-Powered Plyometrics.
With such variety of exercises, the number of plyometric workouts you can design is such that you could go months without performing the same exercise twice. Such variety helps prevent overuse injuries and keeps the workouts challenging and fun.
Plyometrics is often considered a mysterious power training method used by elite athletes and performed under the scrutiny of experienced strength coaches. It’s much more than that. Regardless if you are an elite athlete seeking physical superiority or a novice who just wants to get in shape and lose a few pounds, there’s a plyometric workout out there that can help you achieve your goals.